Palestinian leader: Talks with Israel over

January 25, 2012 - 3:35 PM
Mideast Israel Palestinians

The European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, left, and UNRWA Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi sign a financial agreement during a meeting in Gaza City, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012. Ashton is on a 3-day visit to Israel and Palestinian territories, part of her ongoing efforts to encourage the two sides to resume negotiations. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — A low-level dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians about a future border has ended without any breakthrough, the Palestinian president said Wednesday, reflecting the impasse plaguing the negotiations for at least three years.

President Mahmoud Abbas said he would consult with Arab allies next week to figure out how to proceed now. While frustrated with the lack of progress, Abbas is under pressure to extend the Jordanian-mediated exploratory talks, which the international community hopes will lead to a resumption of long-stalled formal negotiations on establishing a Palestinian state.

Israel said Wednesday it's willing to continue the dialogue. Abbas didn't close the door to continued meetings, saying he'll decide after consultations with the Arab League on Feb. 4.

A Palestinian walkout could cost Abbas international sympathy at a time when he seeks global recognition of a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

The gaps between the leaders are vast, and Abbas believes there is no point in returning to formal negotiations without assurances, such as marking the pre-1967 war lines as a basis for border talks and halting Israeli settlement building on occupied lands. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says everything should be discussed in negotiations and insists he is serious about reaching a deal by year's end.

Though there have been talks off and on, the last substantive round was in late 2008, when Israel informally proposed a deal and the Palestinians did not respond. When Netanyahu took office the next year, he took the proposal, including a state in most of the territories the Palestinians claim, off the table.

A round started in late 2010 by President Barack Obama quickly sputtered over the settlement issue.

Visiting EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is scheduled to meet separately over the next two days with Abbas and Netanyahu to try to salvage the exploratory talks. Two officials involved in the contacts said she is trying to put together a package of Israeli incentives that would keep the Palestinians from walking away.

"We need to keep talks going and increase the potential of these talks to become genuine negotiations," Ashton said.

Before his meeting with Ashton, Netanyahu said, "We've been trying to make sure that the talks between us and the Palestinians will continue. That is our desire."

Under Jordanian mediation, Israeli and Palestinian envoys have met several times over the past month, including on Wednesday. The Quartet of international mediators — the U.S., the U.N., the EU and Russia — said last fall that it expected both sides to submit detailed proposals on borders and security arrangements in these meetings.

Palestinian officials said they submitted their proposals, but that Israel did not. Abbas suggested that exploratory talks could continue if Israel presented a detailed border plan.

"If we demarcate the borders, we can return to negotiations, but Israel does not want to do that," Abbas said Wednesday, after talks in Jordan with Jordan's King Abdullah II. His remarks were carried by the Palestinian news agency Wafa.

The Palestinians are flexible on security arrangements, but would object to any Israeli presence in a Palestinian state, he said.

Netanyahu has said he would not give up east Jerusalem, the Palestinians' hoped-for capital, but has never outlined where he would draw a border.

Such a demarcation could set off a political firestorm in his governing coalition, particular among pro-settler parties, because it would spell out how many settlements would have to be dismantled at a minimum.

In the exploratory talks, Israel submitted a list of 21 issues that would need to be discussed, but didn't present positions.

The Palestinians have accused Netanyahu — a reluctant latecomer to the idea of Palestinian statehood — of seeking negotiations as a diplomatic shield, with no real intention of reaching an agreement.

An Israeli government official said Israel is committed to reaching a full accord before the end of the year. "We hope that the Palestinians aren't looking for an excuse to walk away from the table," the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.

The two sides even disagree on how much time was set aside for these talks. The Palestinians said the deadline is Thursday, or three months after the Quartet issued its marching orders, while Israel believes it has until early April, or three months after the start of meetings.

In other developments Wednesday, the Geneva-based Interparliamentary Union protested the arrest of Hamas lawmakers by Israel in recent days. Five legislators have been arrested since last week, including Speaker Abdel Aziz Dwaik. The IPU, which represents 159 parliaments worldwide, said it is "extremely concerned" and demanded that the lawmakers be released.

Currently, 24 of 45 Hamas legislators from the West Bank are in Israeli detention on charges of membership in an illegal organization. Hamas lawmakers have been subject to arrest by Israel since the group defeated Abbas' Fatah movement in the 2006 parliament election.

Hamas alleged that the arrests are meant to sabotage presidential and parliamentary elections, tentatively set for late spring. Hamas has said it would only participate in elections if its candidates are safe from arrest by Israel.

Israel says the arrests are not politically motivated.